If you haven’t seen it, know that Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game has a “big twist” that single-handedly takes the film out of the doldrums of standard issue political and romantic thrillers, not by appearing at the end and shocking the audience just prior to the credits but instead by being revealed midway through the picture and allowing the change to add new layers to the plot as it stands. Of course this is nothing that can be spoken about directly in a review, even if the changed dynamic between characters which is driven by the “twist” is what makes the film far more intriguing than it would have been otherwise.
Otherwise, the movie is nearly DOA. We start with a British soldier (Forest Whittaker) being lured away from a fairgrounds and kidnapped by a group of Irish terrorists, intending to use the man as a bartering chip – the British have captured one of their men and so they plan to kill theirs if the prisoner is not released. In the days of negotiation, one of the terrorists makes a classic mistake: he begins to talk to the prisoner. This terrorist is Fergus (Stephen Rea) and as the two begin to converse, it turns out that they have a lot in common. Despite being reprimanded by his superiors repeatedly, Fergus continues to share anecdotes and stories with the soldier. He even opens his wallet to look at a picture of the captive’s girlfriend, thus connecting with him on a much more human level than simply seeing his face or knowing his name would have done. The British soldier pleads with Fergus that if he fails to see the end of this predicament, our terrorist with-a-heart-of-gold should seek out the girl in the photograph, take her to the pub, buy her a margarita. Just make sure she is okay.
Cut to an indeterminate amount of time afterward, and here we have our man Fergus in England, searching out the girl that his hostage-friend had told him about. Her name is Dil (Jaye Davidson) and the approach is slow. Fergus (now going by “Jimmy”, natch) scopes out the hair salon where she works, the bar where she spends her free time. He eventually goes to her shop and gets a trim, the two share light banter; he goes to the bar while she is there, they talk to one another using Jim Broadbent as an intermediary. Their budding relationship is measured; Jimmy intends to honor his friend’s wishes by wooing the girl all gentlemanly and thereby being allowed to watch over her day and night. He doesn’t make sudden romantic gestures, opting to wait for her invitation to a kiss or a follow-up date. Their relationship is wonderfully gentle and only gains strength in the aftermath of the “twist”.
But it’s not all fun and games, as two members of Jimmy’s old terrorist organization are back with a plan to assassinate a man who is a major player in British politics. They strong-arm Jimmy into rejoining the group with the standard tactics: threats, innuendo, flashing a gun in the waistband. So now Jimmy’s got a real mess on his hands here: wooing his girl while trying to prevent her from knowing that he shared a friendship with her now deceased prior beau, attempting to assist an old terrorist bloc (without letting his girl know), and trying not to get himself or Dil killed in the process. This is all in addition to the “twist”, which leads to that romantic comedy trope of misunderstood motivation and seeming betrayal. Of course, for a thriller these standard plot devices aren’t seen as frustratingly telegraphed from the start – instead, they are ingenious turns of epic proportion. The Crying Game did win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1993.
My general feeling about the movie when it was complete was that it was not great, but that I liked it overall. If I had written this review immediately after the credits had ended, I probably would have had more praise to deliver than I do now. Within a single day, though, I’ve lost a lot of the positive emotions I’d previously felt and can now only fixate on the terrible final scene (you’ll know it by the repetition of a parable about the travails of a Scorpion and a Frog) and the lack of logic on the part of the terrorist bloc or in the way that the action-driven elements of the story play out. The relationship between Jimmy and Dil still fascinates, though whatever chemistry the two have between them is built rather than earned. But the parts of the movie that rely on the tension of whether or not someone will use their gun feels a lot more typical, at best. This is to say that the thriller element of this political/romantic thriller is the weakest thread.
But I guess it would be a hard film to sell otherwise. You’ve got to play up the sex and violence to get people into the theater, after all. But the strength of the movie is in much simpler concepts. The first act chatter between Whittaker and Rea is, let’s face it, nothing earth-shattering. But they interact with one another in a playful, engaging manner which makes this a highlight of the film. The way in which Jimmy and Dil flirt coyly with one another using the knowing bartender Jim Broadbent as their medium, this is what gets closer to the heart of the film. It’s in small moments, the vocal interaction between two characters. Which is not to say that the bar scene I’ve just described is anything outstanding either – even at its best the movie is by no means challenging – but in contrast to the more dour exercise in using blackmail and firearms for dramatic heft, these scenes succeed wildly. I find much more to like in, say, Dil cuddling with Jimmy and asking him if he will stay forever, knowing that his answers are untrue, than there is in her waving a gun and sobbing once she’s gotten a taste of his true identity.
The intimate is always much more exciting, which is why it is not the “twist” which gives the film some measure of resonance twenty years later (when the fact of the twist is pretty much yawn-worthy) but instead that which follows: the honest reassessment of emotions, the confusion and commitment. There’s not a lot to set The Crying Game apart from other films of its genre, but what there is is sure-footed if not strong. That sense of purpose does not make up for a lack of characterization or weight, but it works toward salvaging something that might have otherwise been reduced to mere gimmickry.